Technology companies are in the business of selling you new technology, so why are companies like Google and Apple exploring ways to help you take a break from tech? While technology has definitely changed our lives, there is some legitimate debate about whether that change is for the better. If you are looking for new ways to improve your productivity or creativity, instead of looking for a new device or app, consider a low-tech approach with a long record of success.

The power of meditation

When it comes to optimizing performance, top leaders in a number of fields have one thing in common: They practice meditation. Once relegated to spiritual groups, the new reality is that meditation is used by elite athletes readying for competition, business executives preparing for a meeting and even soldiers dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder. Current research is demonstrating how meditation can provide benefits outside of a traditional religious setting. More specifically, meditation could be used as part of your workout routine to take a break from technology in an effort to re-connect with your inner self.

Understanding meditation

For centuries, meditation has played an important role in many religious rituals. While it is still a component of many spiritual practices, the ability to measure brain waves has allowed modern science to provide insights into specific benefits of meditation, which is helping to promote the practice.

First, it’s important to understand what meditation is, as well as what it is not. Jessica Matthews, assistant professor of integrative wellness at Point Loma Nazarene University and 2017 IDEA Group Fitness Instructor of the Year (for yoga), describes meditation as “the ability to quiet the mind in order to let go of distracting thoughts and focus attention on the immediate moment.” Meditation is often considered a component of yoga and classified as a format of “mind-body” exercise. This strikes Matthews as funny because, as she remarks, “If we are moving, we need to concentrate on what we are doing so we can move with purpose and intention. Meaning, from a technical point of view, any type of physical activity can qualify as a ‘mind-body’ exercise.” Unlike other modes of exercise, in which form or technique is important and can make a difference in the outcome, there is not one specific way to meditate. Successful meditation requires the ability to breathe deeply, slow down and bring awareness to the present moment.

Meditation doesn’t need to happen from a specific posture or body position but can certainly take place as the body is moving, which is exactly the way that fitness instructor Violet Zaki uses it in the Zen Combat classes she teaches in New York City. “My approach is to practice meditation through movement,” Zaki explains. “All movement requires a mind-body connection, especially in martial arts, where the movements have to be precise and students work to perfect their skills. At the beginning of class, I ask students to clear their minds of distracting thoughts so they can be present and focus on their movements for the next hour. One of my goals with class is to help participants develop a mind-body connection through movement.”

Benefits of meditation

One fundamental purpose of meditation is to bring awareness to what you are doing and how you are feeling in a specific moment. Juan Carlos Santana, the owner of the Institute of Human Performance in Boca Raton, Florida, and a strength coach who works with professional mixed- martial arts athletes, believes that meditation is an essential part of a fitness program and practices a unique approach that he calls present moment awareness.

“I encourage my athletes to be present in the moment so they can improve their performance by concentrating on whatever task is challenging them at that moment,” Santana explains. “In my experience, people will quit a physical challenge based on what they fear WILL happen, which is projecting into the future, as opposed to what is actually happening in the present, the now. During our workouts, I encourage my clients to relax their face—learning how to remove the grimace when doing hard exercise is the first step toward learning how to be present in the moment. If we can help our clients learn how to be comfortable when things get hard, we will be giving them skills that can be used in all aspects of their life, not just during a workout.”

A meta-analysis of the existing research on meditation suggests that the practice does indeed produce quantifiable benefits, including the following:

  • Enhanced concentration
  • Reduced stress
  • Less anxiety
  • Promotes feelings of calm
  • Greater mental clarity

As science has been able to quantify the effects of meditation, one significant benefit is measuring how meditation changes specific parts of the brain like the medial prefrontal cortex, responsible for processing information relating specifically to the self—often referred to as the “Me Center.” When stress accumulates, this part of the brain perceives that things are happening directly to you on purpose, which can subsequently increase feelings of anxiety. Meditation can reduce activity in the medial prefrontal cortex while increasing activity in the lateral prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that considers incoming information from a more logical perspective and is often referred to as the “Assessment Center.” Regular meditation can reduce activity in the Me Center while engaging the Assessment Center, helping to control anxiety, which allows events to be perceived from a more rational, objective point of view.

Adding meditation to your fitness routine

We are almost always multitasking and constantly checking social media for status updates or likes on our latest posts; it seems like the ability to just simply sit and be quiet is a lost skill. Whether it’s waiting in line at the local coffee shop or for the class ahead of yours to finish, what happens when you find yourself waiting for more than a few moments? You probably whip out your phone and start scrolling. According to Matthews, small moments like standing in line are a perfect opportunity for a brief meditation. Life can be really busy, so she looks for little opportunities throughout the day when she can meditate. “While I do make an effort to set aside specific time for meditation, I have found that sometimes just taking a moment or two to breathe deep and focus on being still can have a profound effect and really change the way I am feeling,” she says.

The heart of meditation is having the ability to take a break from the chaos of daily life to be still and focus on the self. If you enjoy working out, then you probably always like the opportunity to learn how to use a new piece of fitness equipment or take a new group class, so why not adopt the same mindset with meditation? The next time you have a few moments to yourself, no matter where you are, take the opportunity to pause, breathe deep, allow your mind to be still and use meditation to focus on your own personal intranet. Just like any other form of exercise, the more you practice it, the more you will be able to coach others on how to add meditation to their daily routine. Here are a few tips that can help you learn how to start your own practice.

  • Pay close attention to breathing: As you exhale, focus on relaxing a specific muscle. The idea is to release the tension in each muscle.
  • Notice what you’re sensing in a given moment: With your eyes closed, try to pick up the sounds and smells that ordinarily slip by without your conscious awareness.
  • Tune into physical sensations: Feel the way that the air is circulating around your skin, align your body so that you feel as if you are a single structure; focus inward to pay specific attention to what your body is feeling in the moment.

Photo credit: Keegan Houser, Unsplash